Ursula Huws


I am sitting in the garden on one of the rare sunny days this summer thinking about the talk I have to do this evening. It’s for a conference of industrial chaplains and I’m to be their after-dinner speaker. A strange and exhilarating prospect for a convent school girl a chance to preach to preachers. I have never met them en masse like this before though I have for years been doing occasional talks for the Essex Council of Churches, a subset of the national group, and glimpsed through their modest introductions the changing economy of the south east of England as ‘I’m from the mission to Ford’s Dagenham’ and ‘I’m from the mission to Tilbury docks’ have given way to ‘I’m from the mission to Prudential Insurance’ and ‘I’m from the mission to Thurrock Motorway Services’. The character of the group itself hasn’t changed very much although there are now a few more women, a few fewer beards. But they are much better listeners than academics, seemingly without envy, and mostly without ‘lines’ to push or points to score and I’m looking forward to meeting more of them. But how in-your-face theoretical should I be with such an audience, especially after dinner and a long day’s conferring?

I am jumpy with the effort of suppressing the urge to bring net to duckweed and trowel to dandelion roots at a time when I’m supposed to be working. Is this peculiar to the self-employed, this internalised contest between guilt and desire that makes cleaning the kitchen floor as enticing a prospect when one is supposed to be at the keyboard as writing is when one is supposed to be scrubbing? The forbidden activity is, I suppose, rather like a weed a plant that just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which trite reflection sets my gaze roaming around me relating everything I can see to its provenance. At a global level just about everything here has been displaced from the site of its genetic origins: the clivia in the pot that is kept indoors in winter is from South Africa, nasturtiums, I seem to remember, come from South America and the sumac tree from North America; and the Japanese anemone must be from Japan and the Virginia Creeper from Virginia. But I’ve a feeling the kiwi fruit vine is not originally from New Zealand but from China. The rose? I give up. But I know there’s been an awful lot of human interference with its genes. Kew Gardens, I recall reading once, played a crucial role as a clearing house in the international traffic in plants a sort of nursery for agribusiness. Plantation crops were most profitably grown on the opposite side of the world from where people had a traditional knowledge of how to tend them: rubber in Malaya; coffee in South America, and often with an imported workforce as well so there’d be no skiving off back to the village.

Nearing the limits of my knowledge of horticultural history I shift attention to the minerals. That slate around the pond came from the inside of Welsh mountains, at huge cost. As a child I heard of men with limbs sliced clean off by a fall of slate misdirected by a badly placed charge of dynamite. There was a famous lockout at the Penrhyn slate quarry in Bethesda in 1900. The quarrymen stayed out for three years but were eventually starved back to work, despite money collected to support them by American workers in Pennsylvania. By the 1980s many of the quarries had become tourist attractions. You could take the kids in hard hats deep down inside the dripping mountain in Blaenau Ffestiniog to the sound of recorded male voice choirs singing hymns and see the great black roofed canyons kitschly lit and come out shivering and feeling you had done something educational to commemorate a vanished past. But one day we chanced, up the road, on a picket line. There were still real workers amongst the ghosts. According to the llechicymru* website, the seven-week 1985-6 strike was the longest there since 1893. The strikers received terrific support from the South Wales miners’ wives, whom they had supplied with food parcels during the great miner’s strike of 1984-5. Yes, there’s dead labour in that slate, all right. The nineteenth century London bricks come from the clay soil of Bedfordshire. I don’t know much about conditions in the brickfields around Luton but imagine there was a lot of heavy manual work involved. Would it have been men or women or perhaps even children who shaped them? And did they work in the open air? And how did they manage not to slip in the clayey mud when it rained? British bricks are quite big. You need a largish man’s hand to grip one properly. Unlike Belgium where the bricks are tiny. You could easily use a 12-year-old as a brickie there. On the other hand, it’d take less labour and, come to that, less mortar, to build with bigger ones. Is there some long-forgotten industrial tussle here whose result is reified in the standard size of a brick? (‘Okay, guv, we’ll concede on the productivity clauses if you give us a guarantee you’ll keep the women out’). The odds are that the bricks in this 1870 house were laid by Irishmen. You still find fragments of their clay pipes when you dig. There is a little raised flower bed which I built myself, using recycled bricks from an inner wall that was knocked down by a previous owner of the house. I can look at a brick and remember the decision I made to put it just there, and not to complete the pointing, to leave chinks for ferns to root themselves, and my satisfaction in lining the rows up with those in the older wall. How does that compare, I wonder, with how one of those Irish labourers would have looked at a finished wall. Would he, revisiting it, think, ‘Ah yes, I remember the problem we had with that corner; see that little curve? That’s where we bodged it. But it looks good, doesn’t it?’. Or would he think, ‘that was the job where that vicious foreman laid off my mate Brendan. All right, so he was drunk, but wouldn’t you be if you’d just heard your daughter had died of diphtheria?’. Or would he fail even to recognise it?

So much for the hard landscaping, as the TV gardeners call it. What about the furnishings? This chair I’m sitting on came from B&Q, part of a matching set, four chairs and a table, on special offer. Made in Italy, it said on the packaging, but I know it’s a global product because last year in Budapest I saw an identical set from the hotel window in a narrow shaded garden with a vigorous Boston ivy and a black-and-white cat. The seats are made of woven plastic, a petrochemical product, made from oil. From Saudi Arabia? Who knows. I think the frames are made from aluminium, they’re so light, but it’s hard to tell because they’re coated in plastic too. Goodness knows where that’s from, but there’s a tiny chance it may have come via Anglesey Aluminium, one of the few factories left on the island I grew up on. Then there are rivets (steel? Could be from just about anywhere), a glass top to the table. Glass is made from silicon – sand. Italian sand? All these minerals, extracted, processed, transported hither and yon, combined and recombined to give me something to sit on and eventually discard; all those workers, sweating, heaving, underpaid, who did the extracting and processing and transporting. And did they take pride in a good piece of work? Did they feel expropriated? Or were they just thankful to have a job at all?

This is taking me back to a game I used to play with myself and still use to entertain children on long journeys. In this game, you have to imagine the earth visited in the future by some scholarly interstellar team of archaeologists and the sense they make of it. We decided once, for example, that they might assume the Happy Eater logo to be the sacred emblem of a tribe which practiced ritualistic cannibalism. Now I am imagining them in a less anthropological mode, taking mineralogical samples of the soil and discovering how everything’s been moved about. Centuries of human scurrying over the surface of the globe rearranging the minerals in ever-smaller amounts into every more complex combinations, unevenly spread, with great accumulations of randomness in certain spots, of which London is one. Hence their descent onto what was once my kitchen. ‘Hmm’, they observe, analysing the vertical surface above the stove, ‘Mexican soil…Canadian timber…Chinese metal’. Though of course they would have different names for these places. But what would they make of the remains of the new mobile phone cum camera that arrived this morning, still in its box on the kitchen table? Probably there isn’t even anyone alive now who knows the whole story of every filament of copper or etched morsel of silicon and how they were united. Would these archaeologists be able to deduce its function? Presumably they’d find thousands like it, scattered over the earth’s surface. Would they work out that they were connected with those remains of satellites littering the solar system? Or the rusting masts on every high point in those regions where the mineralogical mix-up is most extreme? Could they conceive of the layered and intricate co-ordination of the fragmented knowledge and labour – of chemists and physicists and computer scientists and telecommunications engineers and organisational theorists and assembly line workers and truck drivers and cleaners and data entry workers, that breathing in of fumes, that squinting down microscopes, that hunching over screens, that pounding of keyboards, that straining to understand the foreign accent through your headphones, that went into producing precisely this configuration of matter and getting it to this particular spot on earth? More likely it would just seem like sand: all that diversity so muddled up that it has acquired an even sameness. The first law of thermodynamics says that energy cannot be created or destroyed but just gets endlessly transferred around in different forms. The second law says that everything inevitably cools, slows down, disintegrates into chaos: entropy. At the material level, then, we humans are like microbes in a compost heap, breaking all that matter down into a uniform dust: the earth’s diligent shufflers. Now I flip to another game I used to play with myself as a child: explaining the modern world to Dickens. Why Dickens? I suppose I knew he’d be interested. I would stare out of the train window telling him silently what telegraph poles were for, and cars, and how much easier it was for girls to run in short skirts than crinolines. I suspect he would be really excited by the mobile phone, not awed (I don’t think he was ever awed) but terribly impressed by the neatness of it, enthusiastic about its uses. In our imaginary dialogue I would probably have to shut up for quite a while to allow him to expatiate on how this represents a pinnacle of scientific achievement: a triumph of human mind over nature, placing the potential for rich communication into every hand. Flip one way and there’s a multiplication of meaning; flip the other and it’s scrambled into meaninglessness.

I realise that this is another way of looking at commodification, the concept I use for making sense of my research on the restructuring of employment: that relentless engine driving the continuous composition and decomposition of skills, labour processes, organisations, sectors and markets. Since a book of my essays on the subject came out last year, I have composed diagrams on powerpoint slides to explain how I think it all works. So, I think, returning to the subject of my talk and aware too that time is running out to prepare it, after all I will offer them some theory. Now it’s a scramble to put together the presentation before it’s time to leave: some new opening slides that address the title of their conference (it’s about ‘sustainable communities’); then a quick pasting together of photographs of people at work around the world, my diagrams, some bits and pieces from other talks in other places. I’ll think about how to knit it all together with words on the train.

Like the Regents Canal, the North London Line is a pathway through the city that feels as though it has a different weather from the streets and obeys different laws of geography. During the 1960s, when I first lived in London, like most new arrivals, I learned my way around by using the Underground. It took quite a while to discover this overground line which wasn’t on the map. I thought of it as the ghost train, outside real time. The places it went to – Kew Gardens, Hampstead Heath, Kensal Green Cemetery were green places of truancy, places to sit and smoke a peaceful joint with a new friend and ‘wow’ at the dappled light through the leaves and decide whether or not to become lovers. The stations were quiet and mostly unmanned, like those in the country, with a dense summer afternoon feel of stopped time, the track a fox-run bordered with sycamores, buddleia and more exotic things escaped from gardens.

Now I’m travelling east, not west, and the layered memories are more recent. We are passing through the industrial history of the East End. Dalston, Hackney Central, Homerton, Hackney Wick. Factories now become warehouses or ruins or loft-style live-work accommodation, junkyards, railway sidings, nineteenth century tenements, twentieth century council flats. More of those heartbreaking brick walls, made and unmade. Stacked tyres (rubber from Malaysia), Railway sidings (iron from Merthyr Tydfil), Dead labour piled upon dead labour. I berate myself for my Celtic sentimentality and look for signs of new life: some bright Bengali clothes hanging from a balcony; a kebab shop; the cramped shopfront of a mini-cab firm.

And I turn again to the impending talk. How am I going to explain what I mean by a commodity? A thing? And into my head pops that Bobby Darin song from around 1962, it must have been, first heard on Radio Luxemburg on an illicit transistor under the bedclothes in the convent, the year before ‘O’ levels and the Beatles. ‘Things’, chiming in with a cash-register ker-ching between the plaintive lyrics, a perfect soundtrack for that optimistic post-war time of spreading consumerism, nearly every household in the developed world experiencing the thrill of owning its first fridge, first washing machine, first television and me my precious first transistor radio. But as the song spools past, I’m jolted into the sudden realisation that none of the ‘things’ in the song are things. A walk in the park, a kiss in the dark, a lover’s vow; actually they’re the antithesis of commodities, some of the few experiences in that newly materialistic age that did not involve spending any money whatsoever. Not then, anyway. By now they might well have been replaced by a package holiday, a visit to an internet porn site and a pre-nuptial agreement. Bobby Darin, I dimly remember, performed a couple of protest songs during the Vietnam period before he finally donned a tuxedo and went to Las Vegas. Was Things not just about nostalgia for lost love but also an ironic lament for a less materialistic world? ‘Yeah, yeah, what about the night we cried?’. I doubt it, but it helps me think about the process by which capitalism feeds its insatiable appetite for new mass-produceable units from which to make a profit by reaching ever further into those areas of life which are still outside the money economy. I am sometimes asked, after a lecture, whether there is any area of life immune from this commodification process. Once in Sweden someone suggested that the care of frail old people would always remain a service delivered for its use value. Before I had a chance to respond, another man in the audience interrupted to say that he had just got back from Japan where he had attended a press launch to announce the development of a new robot designed for feeding elderly patients in residential care. Rather, I suppose, like those systems they have in Demark which not only milk the cows automatically but also feed them individually tailored doses of processed pellets, identifying them by the bar codes around their necks. It left me haunted with a new fear: of failing to open my trembly old mouth quickly enough and getting my front teeth bashed in by the robotically controlled spoon. More commonly people think of sex as the ultimately uncommodifiable experience. But what about viagra? And those penis enlargement products whose advertisements fill my inbox every morning? The purpose of which enlargement seems to be, judging by some of the other spam, to inflict pain on teenage girls.

The train is now approaching the part of London where the docks used to be. That great thing-exchange at the core of the British empire and the birthplace, of general trade unionism in the 1880s, when Will Thorne and Eleanor Marx addressed mass meetings here. Docker is such a pragmatic, British word compared with longshoreman or stevedore but the work was as precarious and hard whatever it was called. Standing in the crowd hoping to be picked today for your muscle power, heaving crates of things on and off the ships from the East Indies and the West Indies and Australia and India and all those other places on the illustrated maps which still lined primary school classrooms when I was young in the 1950s (‘where does tea come from?’ with oval insets of young women in saris near Sri Lanka, and ‘How is cotton made?’ with white fluffy balls and arrows across the Atlantic to Manchester), although by then the 1947 dock labour scheme and the post-war labour shortages had brought relative security for a while. I wouldn’t have known this, of course, but I would have been familiar with the idea of East Enders as Gor Blimey Lor luv a Duck heroic (white) characters who had survived the Blitz and inhabited a literary continuum extending from Dickens to the Picture Post. My closest acquaintance with this world was through Mrs Clark, my downstairs neighbour in the 1980s. She had been a Barnardo child and remembered being taken in a gang to pick fruit in Kent where she was terrified by the darkness at night, and working in a munitions factory in World War II (in the very building at the top of Highbury Hill where I subsequently taught in the 1990s). ‘I can tell you all about the spirit of the Blitz, my darling’, she told me, ‘I’ve seen corpses with the finger chopped off to get the engagement ring’. She showed me once the rented Islington house where she had brought up her children. Not long ago I saw it advertised for nearly two million pounds.

As we progress, more white people have got off and black people on, the younger ones scrambling the signifiers of race: pale youths with dreadlocks, white girls with nose rings like Rajasthani street vendors, hip black men with hair bleached blond and women with straight hair extensions in shades of red and gold. Stratford, Canning Town. We are nearly at Custom House, where I have to change onto the Docklands Light Railway. I remember when it was first built, the miracle of those raised glass-walled driverless trains flying over the dingy Tower Hamlets tenements, taking us into the vast building site that the old docks around the Isle of Dogs had become. ‘Like a trip into the future’ my daughter called it. The new stations had pretty heritage-industry names like ‘Heron Quays’ stripped of real history. Astonishment at the newness of it all fought with the anger at Thatcher’s destruction of old communities. It was the moment when the concept of ‘old labour’ crystallised: it was so old-fashioned to care; so naïve to think you could stop progress; so timorous not to be exhilarated by the chance to grab the new goodies.

At Custom House I cross from the old nineteenth century platform and climb the steps to the new one. This will be my first trip on this branch of the line. Sheltered in a three-sided glass box on the platform, I look down at the verge between the tracks and count seventeen different species of plant, eight of which are in flower, rooted in the gravel amongst the squashed coke cans. I wish I had a camera with me.

From the train, I see a London I don’t recognise. In amongst the rubble of demolished warehouses are spanking new hotels owned by global chains Novotel, Ibis, Holiday Inn. The Royal Victoria Dock seems to have become the site of a vast conference centre, and is that a cruise ship docked there in front of it? I can only guess at who works there now: Polish construction workers, Philippina chambermaids, Somali kitchen-hands, Russian waitresses, Colombian barmen, third generation black London receptionists? The last Ibis I stayed in was on the edge of Paris, next to a flea market, directly opposite the headquarters of the CGT, the Communist trade union, and used by them for visiting delegations. The African chambermaid told me how she was paid the minimum wage for four hours a day but had to clean a set number of rooms and actually it often took six to meet the target. Why didn’t she join a union, I asked, and pointed out of the window at the CGT office. She looked at me as though I had taken leave of my senses. What could they do? Don’t make me laugh. Hotels are now described, with no trace of irony, as part of the hospitality industry. Most of the work is so closely monitored, the procedures so exactingly pre-set, the targets so precisely defined, the ‘have a nice day’ so carefully pre-scripted that the workers’ movements are hardly more spontaneous than those of the goods flung from deck to waiting dockers’ hands to open truck a century ago here on this spot. It was containerisation that killed the old docks: anonymous uniformly room-sized steel boxes that could be processed mechanically, on inland sites if it was easier to train a new workforce to handle them out of reach of the picket lines of the old. Anything could be inside them: bananas or computers or frightened Chinese migrants, suffocating for lack of oxygen.

Nearly there now. The conference is being held on a new campus of the University of East London. It’s like arriving in a foreign country. A modern station, carefully landscaped, leading directly up to equally new buildings, spread along the water’s edge, among them some pastel-coloured circular blocks that look like descendants of windmills, their reflections in the water almost Mediterranean. On the other side of the Albert Dock you can see the planes taking off along the City Airport runway. In the distance the shining curves of the Thames Barrier; light reflecting everywhere and a wide flat horizon. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the uncitylike sense of clean open space. I make for the water’s edge as one heads for the rail on the deck of a ship, thirsting to gulp in the whole expanse of it. How different this is from the converted factory on Highbury Hill where I used to teach, with the polystyrene tiles peeling from the ceilings and windowless interior seminar rooms. Both universities have (or had, before the Blair government launched its assault on working class students) a similar intake, with a high proportion of older students, many black or Asian, many with kids, who live and work in East London. Some middle class lecturers, like me, rather enjoyed the grunginess of it, but for students who lived in cramped flats on littered estates it must have felt like an insult: this is all you inner-city people deserve. I gave a lecture once on how the concept of the underclass had been developed by right-wing idealogues in America to blame inner-city blacks for their own poverty and how the statistics showed them wrong, but most of these students didn’t want to hear it. We are an underclass, they insisted, and black youths are criminal drug dealers, and some, hard-working black single parents themselves, seemed even prepared to accept a lot of the blame for this. What a naïve white liberal I was. This clean new airy campus has, I hope, been designed for people like them. There is a light-filled atrium with shops and a restaurant and the lecture theatres hum with efficiently functioning equipment. It has something of the atmosphere of the Karl Marx Hof in Vienna, or some of the better 1950s new towns: in this brave new welfare state, only the best will do for the workers. But I see no monument to Eleanor Marx or Will Thorne, or, for that matter, Jack Dash, the dockers’ leader in the great strikes of the 1960s, and some cynical part of me doubts that this could be the case. I imagine scented, suited, muscle-toned forty-somethings in their meetings discussing mission statements and plans to change the demographic profile of the university, move it up-market, attract more foreign students, become part of some Thames Gateway public-private partnership, develop a strategic plan to support new enterprise (whilst of course remaining inclusive, and bottom-up, and empowering, and transparent). But perhaps I’m wrong (and anyway, I remind myself, managers have labour processes too, and suffer from them: middle fingers inflamed from mouse-abuse, stiff aching necks, stomachs regurgitating caffeine-induced acid, ears ringing from the reproaches of neglected kids). What anxious memories will be overlaid on this new paving for the future archaelogists of labour to unearth?

The talk goes well. Afterwards I am presented with a gift, a beautifully wrapped and boxed glass globe inside which are visible the moving brass and steel cogs of a functioning watch. To remind me of Kierkegaard’s invisible watchmaker? The thanks of those gentle men and women of god embodied, along with who knows what labour, in a mass-produced thing.

© Ursula Huws

* Llechi Cymru means Welsh slate

Ursula Huws,
Director, Analytica Social and Economic Research Ltd
Editor, Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation
email: ursulahuws@analyticaresearch.co.uk

Previous: Chenjerai Hove